Northwestern’s NCAA hopes take a tumble

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 08: JerShon Cobb #23 of the Northwestern Wildcats attempts to control the ball against Austin Hollins #20 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers during their first round game of 2012 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Conferene Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 8, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) R:MerlinGetty_Photos140953105.jpg

INDIANAPOLIS – Northwestern guard JerShon Cobb was dribbling near the baseline with 39.6 seconds to play in overtime against Minnesota at the Big Ten tournament Thursday as the Wildcats’ season and NCAA tournament hopes hovered near death.

Cobb was trying to push the ball up the court when he lost his footing and started to fall. The Wildcats’ steadying force the last couple of weeks, Cobb watched the ball slip out of his hand and roll out of bounds on the Bankers Life Fieldhouse floor.

It was a simple mistake that probably cost the Wildcats dearly in their hopes of making the tournament for the first time. The Wildcats trailed Minnesota by three when Cobb turned the ball over. Then the Golden Gophers’ Rodney Williams threw down a powerful dunk. The Wildcats couldn’t recover, and Minnesota won the first-round game 75-68, effectively putting NU’s tournament hopes on life support.

“We still had a chance until the game was over,” Cobb said. “It hurt [turning the ball over]. That was a bad turnover, and it hurt the team.”

Coach Bill Carmody had hoped NU (18-13) could win at least two games in Indianapolis to pad its tournament résumé.

But with the Wildcats’ early exit, they’re perilously close to missing out on the NCAAs and instead getting an National Invitation Tournament bid Sunday.

For the last month, it seems every game has been considered the most important in the program’s history. But the players insist they haven’t caved in to the pressure.

“Hopefully, I won’t be disappointed on Sunday, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see,” senior forward John Shurna said. “It’s been like that for a while, and we’ve won some tough games, and I don’t think we felt pressure. I think we go out there and play our game.”

Cobb could’ve been the Wildcats’ saving grace because he had been enjoying a spectacular night. He scored a career-high 24 points on 8-for-12 shooting and was 3-for-3 from three-point range. Cobb also had eight rebounds and two steals.

“This team is tough, and we fight through adversity, but sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way,” Cobb said.

Minnesota (19-13) contained Shurna in the second half and in the overtime. He scored 12 points in the first half but had only eight in the second half and one in overtime to finish with 21 points.

But Shurna was only part of the Wildcats’ shooting problems in the second half and overtime.

NU shot 33 percent in the second half and 16.7 percent in the overtime.

“I didn’t think we were moving as well as we could, and we couldn’t get open to make the offense click,” Carmody said.

“I don’t know if we were tired, but they just outplayed us in that last period.”

The Gophers were without 6-11 center Ralph Sampson III, who suffered a knee injury in practice earlier this week.

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